I didn’t get to truly know my Dad until a few years ago. For the first 51 years of my life, Dad was the guy of my childhood. Whenever I thought of him or spoke to him, it was the disciplinarian, the rule setter and the lesson teacher I spoke to. We never talked about anything “real” like feelings or thoughts or beliefs. He was always the stoic guy who handed the phone to mom when I called.
And then my mother passed away, and Dad, almost overnight, turned into a different man. We live in different parts of the country, and when he would come visit, he would usually stay with us. We’d spend a week of dinners together and go for drives and just hang out and talk. And talk he did. I learned things about his sometimes difficult childhood that I had no idea about. I learned he wasn’t a stoic, feel-nothing, man. He shared with me how much he missed his wife, and how he had no interest in ever meeting another special woman. Dad shared that he thought she changed him for the better. He also shared some regrets, and wondered if he had been the best husband and the best father he could have been. Dad wistfully told me how much he missed having boisterous family dinners. We talked about whether he would ever consider moving back east to where his remaining family was. We went on a quest one day to find the first neighborhood they had lived in. Dad reminsced about the first time he carried me into the house, telling the story with such love. He said “I love you” frequently. So for the last three years, I finally got to know the man behind the Dad.
So who was my Dad? He was a very intelligent man with a great dry sense of humor who hid deep feelings behind his sometimes stern outside. He was also an explorer and adventurer. His first post-high school adventure was a six year stint in the United States Air Force, which earned him the official title “veteran.” He then spent his life on various occupations and hobbies. When I was much younger, Dad got his pilots license, and then took the entire Girl Scout troop up in the air, one girl at a time. He decided he wanted to ride a motorcycle, so he got a license and a bike, and started driving around on sunny days. I remember walking to a friend’s house once and some guy on a motorcycle pulled up behind me and asked if I wanted a ride. That ride with my dad was my first ever motorcycle ride. He was a state trooper and then a systems analyst. In addition, he embraced the Catholic religion and became a deacon, practicing for many decades. He took early retirement from his computer job. Then my mom and he zipped off to Hawaii where they lived for years and tried their hand at a retail business. My “hippie” parents then decided to move several more times before they finally settled in their final home in Albuquerque. So my dad was always learning and traveling and living life to the fullest.
My dad was also the king of understatement. About a month ago, I was talking to him on the phone and he said he had been a “bit” unsteady on his feet. Also, he said he had a bad case of anemia and maybe some other problems and he had an appointment with an oncologist in late March. Well, I knew the issues had to be bigger than he was saying. So I bought a plane ticket and went to visit.
When I got there, I knew Dad was in serious trouble. He had lost 25 pounds in the three months since I had last seen him. Dad couldn’t eat – he would have a few bites and feel full. He was very wobbly on his feet, and was retaining water from his hips down. Also, he was having problems breathing. We went for a scheduled doctor consultation. Then he had several other tests that same week. The doctor’s readout the following Tuesday, March 31st, was that my dad was full of cancer; all through his body. Because of his age, health, and where the tumors were located, his cancer was inoperable. He was going to need hospice eventually. My sister and I made plans to get him assistance for his immediate needs, and she jumped in a car and headed out, and I made airline reservations. But neither of us would see him again.
On the following Monday, April 6th, a mere six days after his diagnosis, I received a call from a doctor at the hospital where my dad had just been taken, telling me that dad had passed away peacefully. I was not at all surprised to get the call on that specific day because that day was also my late mother’s birthday. That morning she must have been reaching out her arms to my Dad, and saying, “Come on honey, I’m here.” Imagining the smile in his heart as he reached out to connect with her once again makes me grin.
I am thrilled I was able to spend time with him so soon before he left us. Even though he was feeling so poorly the last time I was there, we had some good laughs and some new insights. He told me he felt like he was in another place and when I asked him to explain, he said he couldn’t really. He added that while his body was here, everything just felt different to him; like he was on another plane. We talked about his thoughts about dying and about wills and about family. I have added those memories to my databank of Dad experiences. It is a book to be opened frequently as various things I see and do remind me of him.
This past Friday, his surviving loved ones stood at the cemetery in the quiet, sunny and breezy 70 degree weather in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dad would have loved the simple ceremony. His coffin was placed over Mom’s, and the priest and deacon spoke. Then the US Air Force folded the flag that covered his coffin, and a lone soldier standing a distance away raised his trumpet to his lips and played a beautiful rendition of “Taps.” There was no better way we could have honored his life, and no better way we could have said, “Goodbye, Dad.”